Honoring the Sacrifice of Local Japanese-American Neighbors Relocated During WWII

Remembering the forced relocation and incarceration of more than 100,000 Japanese Americans between 1942 and 1946

Written by Michele Garber  |  Photographed by Nancy Pastor

We Americans like to think of ourselves as the world’s good guys … a heroic nation, reliably on the right side of history, whose brave men and women rid the world of fascism and liberated Europe twice. The country that won the space race and ended the cold war. A beacon of freedom and hope, where for more than two centuries immigrants from across the globe have arrived seeking opportunity.

After all, we are the country where anyone willing to work hard has a chance to succeed—regardless of the color of their skin, the religion they practice, the status of their birth or the zip code in which they dwell. And we are one of the world’s most generous nations, always the first to show up in a crisis and offer our support, our ingenuity, our might and our compassion.

For America isn’t so much a nation as it is an ideal … a dream, and we are a proud people who perhaps feel an innate—albeit slight—sense of superiority. To be sure, our overall worldview and how we view our nation’s role within global matters is evolving—especially among younger generations. Yet in general Americans believe in our own exceptionalism.

Alas, no nation—not even the U.S.—is perfect, and even heroes have foibles. America may be the leader of the free world, the home of the free and the brave, but like most other nations our history is scarred by a few very dark chapters.

Most Americans are aware of the reprehensible way we treated Native Americans in the late 19th century. Under presidents Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren we signed countless meaningless treaties, lied, cheated and forcibly drove American Indians from their ancestral lands—robbing them of their heritage and often their lives, all in the name of continental expansion and manifest destiny. Generations of Native Americans have never fully recovered from the horrendous treatment they endured at the hands of the U.S. government.

Every American knows of the ultimate American sin: slavery. It is undoubtedly our darkest chapter. Slavery left a deep scar that has had a lasting effect our nation. Indeed, our nation’s first two centuries were profoundly influenced at almost every step in some way by slavery—from the establishment of states to the advancement of industries to the outcome of elections and ultimately the tragedy of the Civil War, which resulted in the greatest loss of American life and left our nation bitterly divided for generations to come.

Even after slavery was abolished, the lasting effects of our nation’s most heinous chapter continue. Its profound impact still lingers in our nation’s psyche. Some scars never entirely heal.

Unfortunately, the U.S. treatment of African Americans and Native Americans are not the only shameful chapters in our history. There is another lesser-known dark period in our not-so-distant past when prejudice, hysteria and greed clouded our judgment and prompted our honorable nation to abandon its most fundamental and cherished principles, betray the Constitution and ruin the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent American citizens. On February 19, 1942—just two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor—President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the Secretary of War to establish a military zone in the U.S. Western states, thus paving the way to forcibly remove and incarcerate American citizens and legal permanent residents of Japanese ancestry in concentration camps.

In the weeks and months following the attack on Pearl Harbor there was widespread fear that the Japanese would hit the U.S. West Coast. The highest concentration of Nikkei (people of Japanese descent) residing in the U.S. lived either in Hawaii or near the West Coast.

Ignorance and irrational fear that Nikkei would align themselves with Japan and take up arms and commit sabotage or perhaps espionage against the U.S. became pervasive. These fears were not only baseless, they had been completely debunked in the Munson Report—an extensive and credible study prepared at the behest of FDR by Curtis B. Munson a year before Pearl Harbor. In his report, Munson found that well over 90% of Japanese Americans and Japanese residents were loyal to America.

Rational or not, many in the U.S. government—including the president—determined the Issei (first-generation Japanese immigrants) and Nisei (U.S.-born citizens of Japanese descent) living among us posed a threat. Absurd as it seems, even the elderly, women and children were deemed a risk. They concluded all Nikkei should be removed from areas considered vulnerable to attack by Japan including the west coast of Washington, Oregon, California and parts of Arizona.

The location with the highest and most urgent risk of attack was the Port of Los Angeles. Thus within six days of the signing of EO 9066, 500 Japanese American families living on Terminal Island near Long Beach were given orders to evacuate within 48 hours. They were the first to be evacuated and suffered some of the greatest personal losses of livelihood and property as a result of the haste in their removal.

Just 10 days after EO 9066 was signed, the militarized zone was officially established and divided into areas of “exclusion” where those of Japanese descent could no longer remain. A curfew for all people of Japanese ancestry was implemented between the hours of 8 p.m. and 6 a.m., and the Wartime Civil Control Administration opened 15 “assembly centers”—mostly at fairgrounds and horse tracks—where an estimated 92,000 Nikkei would be processed before being “evacuated” to permanent “relocation” camps.

Over the course of the coming weeks, a series of Civilian Exclusion Orders were systematically issued with “Instructions to All Persons of Japanese Ancestry” in each of the exclusion areas specifying directions of where to report and on what date. The instructions also outlined what each person could and should bring with them for evacuation and what property would have to be left behind.

These Civilian Exclusion Orders came as a shock to many. It was unfathomable to many community members to imagine that the U.S. would ever do something like this to its citizens. Yet for decades prejudice against Japanese Americans was commonplace and openly condoned. And in the two years leading up to EO 9066 there were red flags that this type of injustice could potentially occur.